Elisha Kent Kane, an American surgeon and explorer, died Feb. 16, 1857. Kane participated in two Arctic voyages in search of the missing Franklin expedition. Both voyages were sponsored by an American businessman, Henry Grinnell, who bought the ships and provided them to the U.S. Navy, and so the two voyages are often referred to as the First and Second Grinnell Expeditions. On the first, 1850-51, Kane was the ship’s surgeon on the Advance, but it was Kane who published the narrative in 1854, written with great flare and illustrated with dramatic engravings, the most famous being an image of three Franklin graves discovered by Kane and two others on Beechey Island in 1850 (first image).

On the second Grinnell voyage, Kane was the commander of the Advance. The second voyage (1853-55) was by far the more harrowing, as the ship was frozen in along the coast of upper Greenland and never was freed. Kane and his men eventually had to hike out, and Kane almost died from scurvy on the trek south. However, he lived long enough to write a second narrative, Arctic Explorations, in two volumes (fifth image), this one a best seller, containing illustrations that were just as dramatic as those of the first (third and fourth images). We have both narratives in our collections, and we exhibited the two of them in our 2008 exhibition, Ice: a Victorian Romance, as item 38 and item 48. The dramatic engraving of the Advance silhouetted against the moonlight (third image) was used for the exhibition poster.

The frontispiece to the first volume of the 1856 narrative has a portrait of Kane (sixth image). The intrepid explorer had suffered from every possible kind of illness on previous voyages, including cholera, typhoid, septicemia, and scurvy, and by the time Arctic Explorations was published, his body was just worn out. He died the next year, in Cuba.   His body was returned to Philadelphia, where he was honored by a massive public funeral. His grave and memorial stone are in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.